In a recent New York Magazine article John Sexton, NYU’s president, is doing what he does best: selling. “You want to contrast the way NYU is in the city and Columbia is in the city,” he tells me. Columbia’s campus, sitting at the southern edge of Harlem, is a walled city, the more-than-metaphorical ivory tower. But at NYU, there’s “not a single gate, not a single blade of grass,” which isn’t strictly true, but close enough for a great salesman burnishing his brand.Sexton goes on to talk about the idea for development came at a time when universities across the city were on a land grab. Uptown, Columbia was clashing with residents in West Harlem over plans to build a seventeen-acre campus by eminent domain.
Near the end of our interview, I ask Sexton what would happen if NYU is thwarted in its campaign to build. Sexton told me that NYU can build on land it owns nearby when a building restriction expires in ten years. “We can grow anyway! I mean, we grew for twenty years before. If that’s denied, we have an as-of-right building that will be five feet away. Which we’ll do! Maybe we’ll be forced to add seven stories to the Catholic Center.”
Sexton says this with a smile, but his intention is clear. “What’s good for NYU is good for the city” is a slogan that, one way or another, New Yorkers are going to have to get used to.
Visionary thinking has always been about what this city has been about, so what’s good for Harlem is good for NYC.